Yesterday we took a look at some of the intriguing offensive and special teams matchups the 49ers face against the Seattle Seahawks. Today, I thought we'd take a look at some of the 49ers defensive matchups that could prove essential to the 49ers potential march to victory. The 49ers defense had great moments last season mixed in with a bit of inconsistency. If they can develop some level of consistency in 2010 they could be one of the top defenses in the league.
Some of these players and matchups are a bit obvious, while others are a bit more under the radar. Feel free to throw out some other matchups and players you think are going to be key tomorrow. I've been viewing depth charts at Seahawks.com, NFL.com, and ESPN.com. They provide a mix of starters at some positions (most notably at WR) so for any confusing positions I'll indicate accordingly.
NT Aubrayo Franklin/Ricky Jean Francois vs. C Chris Spencer, RG Max Unger, LG Ben Hamilton/Mike Gibson
One of the big reasons for the 49ers defensive success in 2009 was the emergence of Aubrayo Franklin as a force at the nose tackle position. He might not have been the best nose tackle in the league but he was one of the better ones. His ability to penetrate the backfield and open holes for the linebackers was essential for the 49ers often dominant defense.
Franklin missed virtually all of the preseason and even with some playing time against the Chargers, he will probably still be a bit rusty. More importantly, it remains to be seen how much stamina he'll have. Even though he isn't moving all over the field like a cornerback or even linebacker, his position is physical enough that he'll probably get drained pretty easy in the opening weeks of the season.
That makes Ricky Jean Francois' work in the preseason so important. Coach Manusky indicated RJF was the backup nose tackle (not exactly surprising) and I'd suspect he'll get a good deal of playing time against the Seahawks. If that's the case, his matchup against the interior of the Seahawks offensive line will be a key battle.
OLB Manny Lawson, FS Dashon Goldson, SS Michael Lewis vs. TE John Carlson
The Seattle Seahawks offense has several question marks, but TE John Carlson is not one of them. He isn't at the top tier of tight ends but his first two years in the NFL have been solid and consistent. The Seahawks have plenty of question marks at wide receiver, so I wouldn't be surprised to see Carlson get a whole lot of looks from Matt Hasselbeck.
The question then becomes who will cover Carlson. I'd imagine we'll see Carlson moving around the field throughout the game. Manny Lawson has proven quite adept at covering tight ends, so I'm not all that concerned about his matchup. Dashon Goldson can get physical, which would obviously be rather helpful against a 6-5, 251 pound TE. The big problem would arise if Michael Lewis were left in single coverage on Carlson. Lewis struggles in coverage, and while he's a big boy himself (bigger than Goldson) who is strong in stopping the run, I think a big tight end could have his way with him. Lewis might get the tackle once Carlson comes down with the ball, but his ability to stop him from actually catching the ball would be a problem.
Given that, if Carlson rolls over to Lewis' side of the field, do you have Lawson shadowing Carlson most of the game? On passing downs, if the team goes with four down linemen they have a bit more flexibility with that since they can occasionally bring in Travis LaBoy and have him in at defensive end to help with the pass rush. The question arises more when they're in the 3-4.
The Seahawks released TJ Houshmandzadeh leaving them rather light in WR depth. Or at least light in veteran WR depth. Houshmandzadeh wasn't exactly a stud for them, but he gave them a decent option. Now, we're looking at a team with a group of wide receivers that includes Deion Branch, Mike Williams, Golden Tate, Deion Butler and Benjamin Obomanu.
None of them stands at as a #1, but there is still some talent to be seen. The reason I view this as an intriguing matchup is because aside from Branch, we really don't know what to expect from this group. Even Mike Williams is a really talented WR (or was at one point), but they all have as much to prove as anybody out there. It's entirely possible there's a #1 WR buried in that group waiting to emerge. While we'll see Nate Clements and Shawntae Spencer starting with Tarell Brown as the nickel back, we could very well see some playing time for rookie Phillip Adams. Will James and Tramaine Brock will be inactive and Taylor Mays will spend a good deal of his time focused on special teams. When the team goes to 6 defensive backs on occasion, Tarell Brown and Reggie Smith would likely be the two additional defensive backs. That leaves Phillip Adams as the primary defensive back reserve. Maybe he won't be needed, but you never can tell.
49ers OLBs vs. OT Chester Pitts
The biggest injury for the Seahawks is the ankle injury that will cost them Russell Okung this week. Instead the team will send out converted guard Chester Pitts to man the blind side, which Rotoworld referred to as a "nightmare situation for Matt Hasselbeck." The 49ers put up a lot of sacks last season, primarily when they were winning games. This could be a great opportunity for the 49ers to get some confidence in their pass rush early on. Diyral Briggs is probable, but it sounds like Travis LaBoy will be the primary rotational player behind Parys Haralson and Manny Lawson.